HILO, Hawaii Island — Lava destroying homes and farms. The fate of a massive telescope project awaiting a court decision. Development of Banyan Drive and Hilo’s industrial area.
And especially housing — not just for lava victims, and not just for the most needy, but for the many people in the islands who struggle to survive in such an expensive place to live.
All were topics at a gubernatorial candidate forum in Hilo on Friday night, one that featured the top two Democrats and two of the three Republicans. There were no knockout punches or major gaffes, but all four candidates were able to boil down their central message.
For Gov. David Ige, seeking another four years in office, that message involved sustainability as his main accomplishment and priority. He thinks he has put the state on the right path toward a future that relies on renewable energy and home-grown food, and keeps its waters and lands clean.
For U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is trying to do what Ige did just four years ago by unseating a Democratic incumbent in a primary — Hawaii’s governor should have a vision that prioritizes care of its seniors and its kids. She argues that residents demand leadership, accountability and decisiveness, something she says the state has lacked during Ige’s tenure. It’s time for Hawaii to “think outside the box” to solve its problems.
For state Rep. Andria Tupola, the Republican leader in the Hawaii Legislature, it’s a Hawaii where families can thrive for generations to come. With rising homelessness and a housing crisis, she feels that Hawaii cannot prosper if it continues to rely on the “mindset” that has led to the current morass — that is, rule by Democrats.
For Republican Ray L’Heureux, a retired U.S. Marine more recently employed by the state Department of Education, education is the pathway to prosperity. The state must be more accommodating to high technology in order to lift the standard of living, he said.
Republican John Carroll pulled out of the forum for medical reasons. Third-party and nonpartisan candidates were not on the bill.
The event was held just hours after the suspected killer of a Puna patrol officer was himself killed in a shootout with police in the South Point area. A moment of silence was held at the forum’s beginning to honor the slain officer, Bronson Kaimana Kaliloa.
The two-hour format covered a lot of ground, with each candidate given (mostly) the same questions. There was no rebuttal and candidates did not ask questions of each other.
Probably the only direct challenge came from Hanabusa, who criticized Ige for allowing federal funds to go unused by the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The remark came in a discussion of government spending and use of taxpayer dollars.
Ige appeared to mildly bristle. He stated that he takes the job of managing tax dollars seriously. As an example, the governor pointed to his efforts (especially as a state senator) to keep the pension and health benefits for government workers solvent.
Ige also boasted of the state’s improved bond rating. But he did not respond specifically to his opponent’s comments about the DOT and DHHL funds.
In the view of L’Heureux, the state’s $25 billion in unfunded liabilities for public employee benefits is a ticking time bomb that may soon force Hawaii to make awful budget decisions.
Applause was discouraged, but Hanabusa drew some anyway when she noted that the two female candidates sharing the stage are both from Waianae. Yes, she can be tough and critical, Hanabusa said, but that’s how she was raised and it makes for an effective leader.
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All of the candidates generally support the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a case pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court. It is important, several said, to recognize Native Hawaiian access to the mountains and that safety for protesters and construction workers be ensured.
L’Heureux was the only candidate to openly embrace the TMT, as it fits in with his education-and-technology economic plan. Tupola reminded listeners that several state audits have revealed poor management of Mauna Kea on the part of the University of Hawaii.
The candidates each want to find a way to help the farmers and residents displaced by Kilauea, which continues to pour lava into the ocean.
Ige expressed hope that the county, state and federal governments could find a way to provide financial assistance, and to somehow exchange state land to landowners for the property they lost. Hanabusa called it a moral obligation to help the people of Puna while L’Heureux questioned why people were allowed to build on an active lava zone in the first place.
Tupola on several occasions rallied audience participation.
“Say ‘housing’!” she urged at one point.
“Housing!” audience members shouted.
“Everybody say ‘jobs’!” Tupola followed up.
“Jobs!” they said.
Friday’s forum was one of the last events featuring the top candidates for governor before the Aug. 11 primary. According to the Ige and Hanabusa campaigns, there will be at least one more — on July 30 on the Garden Island, hosted by the Kauai Chamber of Commerce.
Time is running short. Absentee ballots have been mailed out, meaning some voters may already be casting their votes. Early voting starts July 30.
The Hilo forum before about 200 people was held at the Event Center at the Arc of Hilo, near Hilo Medical Center.
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